In Spanish, reciprocal and reflexive verbs are easily confused because both of them work with reflexive pronouns. Despite this similarity, these types of verbs work with different grammar elements. For this reason, many Spanish learners wonder what’s the difference between reciprocal and reflexive verbs in Spanish.
Reciprocal verbs are used to describe actions that two or more people perform on each other. In order to express reciprocity, these verbs only work with plural subjects. Reflexive verbs describe actions that a subject performs on itself. They work with both singular and plural subjects.
Knowing the difference between reciprocal and reflexive verbs can be challenging since they both use reflexive pronouns. For that reason, the following sections will explain when and how to use each type of verb.
We’ll include some phrase structures that you can follow as well as some real-life examples of how to use these verbs. By the end of this, you will have a better understanding of reflexive and reciprocal verbs.
What’s the Difference Between Reciprocal and Reflexive Verbs?
At first sight, reflexive and reciprocal verbs seem exactly the same. Although they both work with reflexive pronouns, these verbs have their own grammatical rules and slightly different purposes. As a result, reflexive and reciprocal verbs are used in different contexts.
As its name implies, reciprocal verbs express reciprocity. In other words, these verbs are used to express that an action is being performed for two or more people and equally received by them. They do this action on each other. In order to express this reciprocity, reciprocal verbs always are in plural form.
Ellos se abrazan todo el tiempo
They hug each other all the time
Priscila y yo nos peleamos
Priscila and I fought
On the other hand, reflexive verbs are used to talk about an action that a subject performs on itself. Unlike reciprocal verbs, reflexives are not tied to only work with plural forms.
Yo me abrazo cuando tengo frío
I hug myself when I’m cold
Mis hermanas se levantan muy temprano
My sisters wake up very early
Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between reciprocal and reflexive verbs, let’s see how and when to use these verbs.
How & When to Use Reciprocal Verbs in Spanish
Reciprocal verbs are used to express that an action is being performed for two or more people and equally received by them. To put it simply: it’s an action that two people perform on each other.
As its name suggests, reciprocal verbs are all about reciprocity and in order to keep it, they always work with verbs and pronouns in the plural form.
Whenever you use a reciprocal verb, it must be paired with one of the following plural form pronouns:
- Se (Ustedes)
- Nos (Nosotros)
- Os (Vosotros – in Spain)
These ‘reciprocal pronouns’ can be translated as ‘each other’. However, this English pronoun may not always feel natural in a sentence. Here is the phrase structure that you need to follow.
(Subjects) + [reciprocal pronouns] + [verb conjugated in plural form]
Darío y yo nos besamos
Dario and I kiss (each other)
Vosotros os ayudáis todo el tiempo
You guys help each other all the time
¿Por qué Adrián y Vanessa se miran tanto?
Why do Adrian and Vanessa look at each other so much?
Ana y Kevin se casaron cuando tenían veinte años
Ana and Kevin got married (to each other) when they were twenty years old
Take Note: You cannot express reciprocity unless there is more than one person involved. As a result, reciprocal verbs are always conjugated in plural form and they work with plural reflexive pronouns. Aside from this rule, these verbs follow the same conjugation pattern as reflexive verbs.
Related Resource: How to Conjugate Reflexive Verbs in Spanish.
In Spanish, depending on the context, ‘each other’ can also be translated as: uno al otro, entre ellos, entre nosotros, mutuamente (mutually). These expressions can be added to your reciprocal sentence. However, its only purpose is to intensify it since you’re already expressing reciprocity with the pronouns.
Vosotros os ayudáis uno al otro todo el tiempo You guys help each other all the time
Mis amigos se odian mutuamente My friends hate each other
These words cannot be used with reflexive verbs. As a result, they can help you set aside reciprocal from reflexive verbs.
How & When to Use Reflexive Verbs in Spanish
We already established that reflexive and reciprocal pronouns share a few things in common. But unlike reciprocal verbs, reflexive verbs aren’t required to work with plural subjects. Additionally, reflexive verbs are used to describe actions that a subject performs on itself (not to others).
In other words, the subject (person performing the action) and the object (the person being affected by the action) are the same. Since they work with both singular and plural persons, when using reflexive verbs you need to make sure to match the reflexive pronoun with the subject.
|Personal Pronoun||Reflexive Pronoun||Reflexive Pronoun (English)|
|Él / Ella / Usted||Se||Himself / Herself / Itself|
|Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes||Se||Themselves|
Notice that they won’t always be translated into English because it may sound unnatural.
Subject + [reflexive pronoun] + [verb conjugated]
Yo me miro al espejo
I look myself in the mirror
Caleb se lavó las manos hace rato
Caleb washed his hands a while ago
Elsa se quebró el brazo cuando tenía veinte años
Elsa broke her arm when she was twenty years old
Mis hermanas se levantan en la noche cuando tienen sed
My sisters wake up at night when they’re thirsty
Take Note: When working with plural subjects, it’s easy to confuse reflexive and reciprocal pronouns. In this case, you need to pay attention to the context and the intention of the phrase. For instance, in the previous sentence mis hermanas se levantan de noche we know that they’re not waking each other up .
Related Resource: How & When to Use Reflexive Verbs in Spanish
Since they share some things in common, reciprocal and reflexive verbs are very easy to confuse. That’s why in this article, we discussed the main differences between these types of verbs. We learned that they work with different subjects and they have a slight difference in meaning.
Here are some takeaways to keep in mind:
- Describe actions that two or more people perform on each other.
- In order to express reciprocity, they are always conjugated in the plural form.
- Only work with the pronouns ‘se’, ‘nos’, ‘os’. They can be translated as ‘each other’.
- Describe actions that a person performs on herself/himself.
- Works with both singular and plural forms.
Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of the difference between reciprocal and reflexive verbs.